Uber is, in many ways, the quintessential startup story – one that will be studied, analyzed, discussed and debated for decades to come. But there is every chance the ride-hailing pioneer turned cautionary tale will be revered less for how it has harnessed technology to disrupt 21st century transportation than for the toxic culture that triggered its leadership crisis.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a foremost authority on innovation, leadership and change management, doesn’t disagree. But she also believes Uber is too important a concept to let it fail. “I see this as part of the transportation model of the future,” said Kanter in a recent article published by Harvard Business School. “I do think they have a chance to reinvent themselves.”
Uber’s just-fired CEO Travis Kalanick has long been the sort of leader Silicon Valley esteems: brash, unapologetic and committed to winning at all costs. Yet, as the company’s valuation ballooned into the billions, its aggressive culture started causing enterprise-threatening problems and customer defections. Startups like Uber often think they can get away without being responsible to all stakeholders – service providers, communities, governments and diverse employees, including women – explains Kanter. But Kalanick’s forced resignation earlier this month makes it clear: responsibility does matter.
Uber is indeed a role model, she says – for why business performance and financial results are a “lagging indicator” of a company’s health. “They tell you what you’ve just done. They don’t predict the future. Culture is a leading indicator. Culture predicts the future.”
It will take a special leader – a seasoned executive with a proven track record as a culture-builder, intent on calming the chaos – to successfully recalculate Uber’s current direction and save its future. Kanter believes “it’s a great lesson in leadership and why culture is so important – more important in some ways than strategy.”
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